Most special education students in Halifax County Public Schools are back in the classroom this school year.

The return to the “pre-pandemic,” face-to-face instructional format is one that Martha Brizendine, director of special education for HCPS, favors for special education students.

“In-person instruction is always considered the most effective form of instruction for students with disabilities,” Brizendine stated.

She added that the effectiveness of virtual instruction versus in-person instruction depends on a student’s disability, and each special education student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) dictates how instruction is delivered to that student.

While the vast majority of students in HCPS received virtual instruction only for most of the 2020-2021 school year, all Virginia schools must offer face-to-face instruction to students five days a week this school year.

Beyond that, there are no special guidelines for the way instruction is delivered to special education students this school year, but the vast majority of HCPS special education students are receiving in-person, full-time instruction, Brizendine shared.

Out of 857 special education students district-wide, Brizendine said fewer than 50 are receiving instruction virtually this school year.

Out of 4,681 total students enrolled in HCPS this school year, only 190 elementary students are enrolled in the Virtual Virginia program and as of Sept. 1, 190 secondary students were enrolled in virtual learning through the school system.

Virginia school districts did not receive any specialized guidelines for how instruction must be delivered to special education students in the 2020-2021 school year either, with those decisions being left to the school boards in each school district, Brizendine explained.

Early last school year, Brizendine advocated for special education students in self-contained programs, which she described as having the “most significant needs,” and those assigned a one-on-one paraprofessional to have the option of returning to the classroom for in-person instruction.

The Halifax County School Board voted in late September 2020 to give 139 special education students the option to return to the classroom for in-person instruction. At that time, HCPS students had been out of the classroom since mid-March 2020 because of COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a decrease in in-person instruction for general education and special education students alike, which has resulted in learning loss for students. Brizendine discussed ways HCPS is working to address that learning loss for special education students.

“Learning loss is obviously a concern we have and is something we have addressed in the summer programs and continue to address,” Brizendine noted. “From our Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, we have added special education teachers, a behavioral specialist for elementary and an instructional coach, and have requested a curriculum-based computerized program to help with learning loss.”

The way that instruction is delivered to special education students in HCPS is not a one-size-fits-all approach but is tailored to each student, based on that student’s IEP. Brizendine further explained that the majority of special education students receive instruction in a general education classroom setting, while some receive instruction in self-contained special education classrooms where class sizes are capped based on federal guidelines, some are in private day placement, some are in community-based programs, some are home-schooled, and students with “significant medical needs” receive instruction through home-based services.

The director of special education said the school system is working hard to address learning losses of all special education students, regardless of how instruction is delivered to them.

“We are doing our very best to address the concerns parents have and do what’s best for our students,” Brizendine said.

The breakdown of special education students at each school is 284 at Halifax County High School, 176 at Halifax County Middle School, 38 at Clays Mill Elementary, 83 at Cluster Springs Elementary, 24 at Meadville Elementary, 52 at Scottsburg Elementary, 26 at Sinai Elementary, 113 at South Boston Elementary, 31 at Sydnor Jennings Elementary and 30 at the South Boston Early Learning Center.

Miranda Baines is a staff writer for The Gazette-Virginian. Contact her at mbaines@gazettevirginian.com.

Miranda Baines is a staff writer for The Gazette-Virginian. Contact her at mbaines@gazettevirginian.com.